By Australian Progress, Commons Librarian, Robyn Gulliver
The Organising Models Mapping Project, run by the Commons Library and Australian Progress, explores different organising models being utilised in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. The project includes a survey of organisations which use organising as part of their advocacy.
This article presents the results of the survey which focus on how people gather to take collective action as part of organising programs. In particular, it considers how organisations structure what we call in this article ‘sub-groups’; groups of individuals volunteering for the organisation. These can include local groups active within a geographic region, as well as groups working on specific issues, skills or other basis. The article Organising Model Structures: Influences, Challenges and Opportunities provides an overview of these various arrangements.
Twenty four organisations responded to the survey, of which twenty employed paid staff to manage their organising model. Eight of these organisations had been engaged in organising for either 1-5 years or more than 10 years. You can read more about the survey responses in other articles in this series.
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Defining people within organising models
Many organisations use some version of the Circles of Commitment framework to track levels of engagement within their organising models. This model proposes five categories of engagement:
- Community – the set of people your organisation is trying to reach (this could be the number of people in your constituency or geographic area)
- Crowd – the members of the Community who are in contact with your organisation (this could be your supporter list)
- Contributors – those members of the Crowd who volunteer or donate
- Committed – those Contributors who can organise others (these people make it possible for others to take action)
- Core – those Committed people without whom the organising project would fall apart (this may be paid staff members or high level volunteers)
Twenty survey respondents provided numbers of currently active people in each circle component. The graphic below shows the median response for each circle, with the minimum on the left and maximum on the right.
All but one survey respondent employed staff as part of their organisation or directly for supporting their organising model. The majority of respondents employed 1 or 2 staff directly on supporting their organising model, often at a fractional basis. For example, two organisations active in the environmental sector employed 1.5 FTE organising staff, while one organisation active in political advocacy employed 12 organising staff.
Some organisations noted that they distinguished between staff roles related to organising. For example, one organisation employed staff to either work as organisers of groups, or organisers of tactics. Another organisation employed paid organising staff to assist other advocacy groups unable or unwilling to employ staff directly. Finally, another group noted how key moments of mobilisation influenced staff numbers, in some cases quadrupling staff at critical organising times.
Some survey respondents noted that they use a different system for measuring their supporters. Two organisations noted that they used an adapted Circles of Commitment model. For example, one organisation stated:
We have an additional circle of active members of the crowd – people who regularly take action who would include volunteers and donors but others who are active in a campaign sense without volunteering or donating.
One organisation used an adapted Circles of Commitment framework (Figure above) as it allowed for both leadership and donation behaviours. For example, ‘Supporters’ could include individuals who had given one or small donations, while ‘Active Supporters’ were either financial members or donors giving between $50 and $1,000 per year. Similarly, this model clearly identified a range of leadership behaviours. These included celebrity ambassadors, committee members, professional volunteers donating more than 50 hours per year, and major donors giving more than $5,000 per year.
Three organisations discussed how they sought to integrate the Circles of Commitment with a Ladder of Engagement. One organisation is aiming to move entirely towards a ladder of engagement model, while another noted that their ties to Action Network influenced their ability to utilise a ladder of engagement process:
We do have access through Action Network (database) to ladders of engagement but our ability and willingness to use them seriously is patchy. Currently a new attempt at attracting and retaining folks is going on, with new people and some new thinking going on.
One other organisation used the same Circles of Commitment labels, while defining some of the specific actions related to each level.
Constituencies within organising models
Survey respondents were also asked about who they targeted to join their sub-groups. The majority of respondents said that their organising constituency primarily included people who were interested in acting on a broad issue that impacted on many people. Many organisations also sought to mobilise people with lived experience (17 respondents) as well as individuals who were directly and currently impacted by the organisation’s particular issue (15 respondents).
Measuring active group members and sub-groups
There was substantial variety in the number of active sub-groups survey respondents calculated, as well as the number of people active within these sub-groups. Some respondents noted that it was impossible for them to track the number of active groups and individuals within them, while another organisation noted that they currently were going through a process of rebuilding their model and thus numbers were in flux.
The median number of subgroups was 12.5, although some organisations had 100 or more sub-groups. The median number of active members across each organisations’ sub-groups was 438. However, as the figure below also shows, some organisations had only 30 or so active members, while others had 600 or more.
Some responses were not included in the figure below. Three organisations were able to state how many sub-groups were active (6, 25 and 67), but did not know how many people within these sub-groups were participating directly in them. One other organisation knew they had around 250 active members, but not how many sub-groups they operated in; primarily because they were in the early stages of talking to all member organisations and planning a 2023 gathering on the topic.
Bubbles show the number of active members and number of sub-groups for each survey respondent. Note, one organisation with 42 sub-groups and 5,627 active members was not included in the graph to reduce skew.
Roles and responsibilities within subgroups
Across organising models there is substantial variety in the internal structure of subgroups. This diversity predominantly relates to whether local group members are required to take on a formal role or not, and the level of autonomy afforded to each subgroup.
Ten survey respondents noted that they specify formal roles within each subgroup. Across these responses, 47 different roles were mentioned; the most common were ‘committee member’, ‘group convenor’, and ‘social media coordinator’.
Three survey respondents did not assign any formal roles, while ten noted that some of their subgroups chose to assign roles but those roles varied across each subgroup. This variation occurred when organisations allowed their subgroups to self-govern and to have the autonomy to make their own decisions on how they structure and manage themselves.
Another variation in role assignment was found in organisations that direct groups to structure themselves around tasks rather than roles. In one organisation while each subgroup usually has a convenor, subgroup members can also assign leads for particular tasks such as recruitment and organising actions when required.
Whether organisations assigned formal roles or allowed subgroups to self-govern, one element was consistent. Subgroups were more likely to persist when ensuring that subgroups offered multiple roles, tasks or opportunities for new members to participate.
This was especially important at the initial participation stage. A number of organisations highlighted the importance of developing processes for integrating and welcoming new team members. Pre-planned pathways for participation helped build local groups and increase the likelihood they would persist over time. Similarly, Fellowship Programs, internships and volunteer programs all helped attract new volunteers and build strong relationships within each subgroup and the wider organisation.
In addition to formal programs for attracting new subgroup members, some larger organisations offered multiple entry points for new participation. One organisation enables people to join the organisation at different levels. People can simply join their large audience and supporter base and receive regular updates within the need to take action. Alternatively, interested people can join a variety of subgroups, step up into a group leader role, or else participate in activities which may closely match their particular interests or skill set. This model offers multiple steps on the ladder of engagement but can be challenging and staff intensive to successfully manage.
An important element in building and sustaining local groups was the opportunity for local group members to participate in training and mentoring. Training was seen as critical for building activist skills both for engaging in activism and for effectively working in their local group. One organisation noted that their training and leadership programs enabled clear steps for volunteers up the ladder of engagement.
The other important aspect of our work is our youth organising – involving training, paid internships, creating opportunities to speak and lead.
Challenges associated with people in organising models
How people are organised within subgroups was often difficult to manage in practice, particularly where organisations had limited staff or resources available for support.
Comment from survey respondent
|Identifying and supporting leaders||Leadership identification is a challenge. Our pool of active volunteers is small compared to our ambitions and the supporter base. People tend to be time poor or are involved with many issues. Maybe the core staff and volunteers need to spend time mentoring or coaching our active members.|
|Losing connections||We do seasonal organising and it’s difficult for us to maintain momentum in winter months when the campaigns are less active. This means we can lose connection with people. If we had a stronger committed supporter structure then people could maintain connections with each other and share news and ideas.|
|Network confusion||Lots of people in our network volunteer with other organisations and movements – this means people are confused about everyone’s roles in the climate movement and are spread thin.|
|Recruitment||Recruitment is hard at the moment. The covid experience meant previous networks and relationships were dropped. New roles have new processes and are starting from scratch.|
|Dropout||Lots of people are interested in doing more, and signing up, but the drop off to action and commitment is also high.|
|Poor experiences||Consensus based decision making around internal issues becomes the key priority [after peak organising moments] which isn’t necessarily a great first experience for new people.|
|Lack of access||No clear pathways for individuals outside of locations where there groups to be involved.|
|Burnout/overwork||[Our main challenge is] core volunteer burnout and overwork.|
Many organisations recognised these challenges and noted that they remain some of the most pressing concerns for successful sustaining their organising models. One organisation provided an overview of their strategy to recruit and retain people, deliberately using a distributed (or ‘snowflake’) organising model to empower local volunteers to be active in this area as well. Within this distributed organising approach, paid organisers took on the responsibility of creating multiple opportunities for people to join the organisation and move up in their circle of engagement. They did this through organising a range of events and programs, including:
- Welcome sessions (minimum monthly frequency)
- Community phoning sessions (calling supporters and volunteers to invite to events, actions and other activities)
- Volunteer leader informal meetings (informal lunches/dinners with lead volunteers and paid organiser, minimum monthly frequency)
- Outdoor trips, such as nature excursions, open to all supporters and volunteers (minimum two monthly)
- Campaign trips for volunteer leaders to areas where campaigning is active (minimum six monthly)
- Training/mentoring programs
- Staff and volunteer awards program
- Read the other articles in the Organising Models Mapping Project collection
- Navigating Turnover in Activist Groups: A Guide developed by the Global Grassroots Support Network with ideas and strategies for activists groups to implement when dealing with turnover, especially with student led groups.
- How to structure teams for organising
- Organising: Start Here